Governing by Pen and Phone

by Victor Davis Hanson
Obama used to sigh that he was not a dictator who could act unilaterally. No more.

Lately a weakened President Obama has fashioned a new attitude about consensual government: “We’re not just going to be waiting for legislation in order to make sure that we’re providing Americans the kind of help they need. I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone,” Obama boasted Tuesday as he convened his first cabinet meeting of the year. At least he did not say he intended to govern by “pen and sword.” If Obama used to sigh to supporters that he was not a dictator who could just implement progressive agendas by fiat, he now seems to have done away with the pretense of regret.

Obama has all but given up on the third branch of government since he lost control of it in 2010: “And I can use that pen to sign executive orders and take executive actions and administrative actions that move the ball forward in helping to make sure our kids are getting the best education possible, making sure that our businesses are getting the kind of support and help they need to grow and advance, to make sure that people are getting the skills that they need to get those jobs that our businesses are creating.”

There are lots of creepy things about such dictatorial statements of moving morally backward in order to go politically “forward.” Concerning issues dear to the president’s heart — climate change, more gun control, de facto amnesty, more massive borrowing supposedly to jump-start the anemic, jobless recovery — Obama not long ago had a Democratic supermajority in the Senate and a strong majority in the House. With such rare political clout, he supposedly was going to pass his new American agenda.  

Instead, all he got from his Democratic colleagues was more borrowing and Obamacare. In the case of the latter, the bill passed only through the sort of pork-barrel kickbacks and exemptions to woo fence-sitting Democratic legislators that we hadn’t seen in the U.S. since the 1930s. And for what? Obamacare (be careful what you wish for) is proving to be the greatest boondoggle in American political history since Prohibition. If Obama sincerely wished to work in bipartisan fashion with Congress, he probably could easily get a majority vote to build the Keystone XL Pipeline, or a backup sanction plan against Iran in case his own initiatives fail.

Note as well that Obama says he will bypass Congress for “our kids.” Politicians usually cite the “kids” when promoting something that is either illegal or unethical. Meanwhile, apart from Obama’s support for late-term abortion, no president has waged a greater war against those under the age of 30 — passing on to them an additional $9 trillion in debt, socializing the economy and presiding over near-record youth and minority unemployment rates, taxing far poorer youth who will not use much health care to pay for more affluent baby boomers who will, or floating easy federal student loans to facilitate mostly liberal universities’ jacking up tuition at well above the rate of inflation (currently a $1 trillion bubble).

We are reentering Nixonian times, or perhaps worse, given that a free press at least went after Nixon’s misdeeds and misadventures. Now it has silenced itself for fear of harming a once-in-century chance for a fellow progressive’s makeover of America. We live in an age when a CNN moderator interrupts a presidential debate to help her sputtering candidate, and when a writer for the often ironic and sarcastic New Yorker sees no irony in doing a fawning interview with the president, tagging along on a shakedown jet tour from one mansion of crony capitalists to the next — as Obama preaches to the head-nodders about inequality and fairness in order to ensure that the bundled checks pour in.

Without the media acting as a watchdog, the administration has with impunity found the IRS useful in going after political opponents. When Obama’s IRS appointees were exposed, he for the moment called their deeds outrageous; when the media did not pursue the outrage, he wrote it off as a nothing story.

The media certainly thought it was nothing, given that none of the obsequious Washington press corps will be unduly audited or indicted. But the administration has also monitored Associated Press reporters. Most of what it initially said about the National Security Agency snooping proved untrue — including Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s flat-out lie to Congress while under oath, when he testified that the NSA was not collecting data on millions of Americans. All we know for now about Benghazi is that everything the administration alleged about the murders was false — from why Americans were there, to what prompted the violence, to why no help was sent before or during the attack, to the aftermath promises to hunt down the perpetrators.

The filmmaker and arch-critic of Barack Obama, Dinesh D’Souza, is now under indictment for improper campaign contributions. If he deliberately violated campaign-finance laws and compounded the violation by conspiring with others, then by all means he should face the full force of the law. The problem, though, is that even if D’Souza proves to be guilty as charged, others with far greater culpability — but with the correct political views — have not met the same degree of administration scrutiny.

Note, for example, what D’Souza did not do: He did not, as an Obama insider in the heat of the reelection campaign, leak classified information about vital national-security secrets like the Stuxnet virus attacks, the bin Laden raid, the drone protocols, or a double agent in Yemen in order to bolster the anti-terrorism credentials of the president; he did not, as a high-level Obama official, lie under oath to Congress about the NSA program; he is not a former Democratic governor who defrauded thousands of investors out of billions of dollars. Apparently none of that will get you arrested by this administration.

Mr. D’Souza also did not, as did Obama himself, have a soon-to-be-jailed felon sell him a lot next to his own house at below-market rates, without paying gift taxes on it, in exchange for perceived political favors. He did not pass illegally into the United States and reside here illegally by habitually lying on documents about his resident status. He did not go to the polls with clubs to intimidate voters. He did not bundle $500,000 to buy an ambassorship to Norway without knowing much of anything about Norway. He did not pitch green ideas to friends now in the Obama administration in order to land millions of dollars in federal loans that he would default on.

He did, though, make a movie critical of Barack Obama, and this is most likely what brought him under administration scrutiny, as did the activities of a video maker arrested for producing a politically incorrect video about Islam, or those of unduly audited Tea Party groups or Hollywood conservatives who have criticized the president. All of that, in this age of pen and phone, can get you arrested, audited, or on the IRS watch list.

Note the ripple effect, as partisans appreciate a new climate and a once-in-a-lifetime chance to even scores and advance the cause. The governor of New York announces that there is no place in his state for those whom he derides as “extreme conservatives” — only to be seconded by the new mayor of New York City. (Imagine the governor of Utah suggesting to liberal residents that their support for gun control, late-term abortion, and gay marriage might be good reasons for them to leave the state — and being seconded by the mayor of Salt Lake City. Or imagine a Republican president arbitrarily deciding that he does not like the DREAM Act component of a recently passed comprehensive immigration-reform bill, and so simply choosing to ignore it and deport students who are illegal aliens anyway.)

The first black senator from South Carolina since Reconstruction is blasted by a state NAACP official as a “dummy,” only to have that slur seconded by the national organization. On MSNBC, one newscaster hopes Sarah Palin ingests feces and urine; another takes a jab at Mitt Romney for having an African-American adopted grandchild; still another labels radio personality Laura Ingraham a “slut” — all convinced that the periodic presidential sermon about a new civility empowers their crudity and deters critics.

As the president’s polls dance around a 40 percent approval rating, we are now told in the New Yorker interview that Obama believes that his race may be the cause of his unpopularity. Apparently, Obama believes that he is increasingly distrusted not because of Benghazi, or the AP, IRS, NSA, or Fast and Furious scandals, or the new $9 trillion in national debt, or the new normal of 7 percent unemployment, or the lies about Obamacare, but because his father was African.

Consider the logic: Apparently after twice electing Barack Obama, a public that is 89 percent non-African-American suddenly, in 2014, five years after his first inauguration, discovered, and now is angry, that its president is half black. Consider the box into which the president of the United States has put the public. He seems to be saying that to the degree that he is elected twice and polls over 45 percent, Americans are let off the hook as non-racist. To the degree that he falls below 45 percent in the polls, he is not sure that we aren’t racist. So will we please regain his trust, and not be called racist, by voting for his candidates in the 2014 midterm elections?

Under Obama, who you are and what you represent rather than what you have done are becoming the selective criteria for pen-and-phone legal enforcement. For the first time since 1974, America is no longer quite a lawful place.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.